Marlon Brando

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Marlon Brando Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 20/7/16

Richard Burton’s diary entry for 28 May 1969 reads as follows:

‘Marlon [Brando] has yet to learn to speak. Christ knows how often I’ve watched Marlon ruin his performance by underarticulation. He should have been born two generations before and acted in silent films’.

The most famous proponent of method acting, Brando, nearly a decade after his passing, remains indisputably one of the great American exponents of his art. Achieving a reputation such as this, in light of Burton’s commonly held view, is even more remarkable. Like him or loathe him, he exuded a raw animal magnetism and mercurial personality throughout his movies that transcended his diction; director Martin Scorsese referring to him as “the marker” whilst adding that “There’s ‘before Brando and after Brando’.” He became a box-office star during the 1950s, during which time he racked up five Oscar nominations, along with three consecutive BAFTA Award wins in a leading role. As an actor therefore, his achievements speak for themselves, though as a man, his reputation remains infinitely more convoluted.

Under construction

Understanding the problems faced by any biographer, particularly when recalling instances in which all the protagonists have since died, is amply illustrated by the background machinations to the location shoot in Tahiti, for the 1962 remake of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. The film went massively over budget and Brando was greatly blamed for the production problems. Robert Sellers, in his book, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’ (Arrow 2012) writes in chapter 51 ‘Tahitian Nightmare’ that’;

What greeted (Richard) Harris in the South Seas was a production in utter chaos. Brando seemed on edge the whole time, fluffing lines and dripping paranoia. He and (director) Carol Reed argued constantly, and stories began to emerge that when Brando didn’t get his way, he’d throw a hissy fit and walk off the set, slowing the rate of production to a crawl. The weather didn’t help either, with torrential rain and storms blighting the location site. There were scorpions and rats to contend with, too, and the cast and crew succumbed to dysentry and sundry other tropical ailments’.

So what, if anything, was bugging Marlon? From the perspective of more than fifty years on, it’s unimportant – in fact one could argue that even in 1962, his involvement in any production delays would have concerned only the senior executives at MGM. No – what is unequivocally far more interesting from the whole episode, is the greater understanding of human motivations we can can gleam from the troubled shoot.

Brando was not displeased to find himself in the South Seas; on the contrary, it was the very location itself that had convinced him to ‘sign on’. In chapter 9 of his 1994 autobiography, he writes:

‘In the early 1960’s, MGM asked me to play Fletcher Christian in a remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty” and said it would be filmed in Tahiti. Previously, David lean had asked me to play T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia”; I had gone to Paris to meet with him and Sam Speigel, and they had announced I was going to be in the picture. But when ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ came up and David said he expected to take six months filming “Lawrence of Arabia”, most of it in the desert, I decided I’d rather go to Tahiti. Lean was a very good director, but he took so long to make a movie that I would have dried up in the desert like a puddle of water’.

Recommended viewing

The Men (1950)

A Streetcar named Desire (1951)

Julius Caesar (1953)

On the Waterfront (1954)

Morituri (1965)

The joker in the pack, and a selection of mine with which many of the actor’s aficionados will take issue.

Crucial editing errors sabotaged the film’s commercial prospects. A dialogue heavy script, and a confusing title – the Latin phrase morituri te salutamus (“we who are about to die salute you,”) spoken by ancient Roman gladiators prior to combat — did not enhance the film’s prospects. The studio unsuccessfully tried to boost audience interest by re-titling the movie “The Saboteur: Code Name Morituri,” but to no avail. Brando’s career would continue treading water until the early 70’s, despite this espionage thriller and other interesting non-mainstream projects like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).

In the movie, Robert Crain (played by Brando) is a German deserter living in India during World War II. He is blackmailed by British intelligence agent Colonel Statter (Trevor Howard), to pose as a Gestapo agent in order to gain passage on a German blockade runner that is transporting a precious cargo of rubber to Nazi-occupied France. As Statter so succinctly puts it – the amount of rubber in question will mobilise the entire German army for three months. In a surprisingly effective on-set reunion – Howard had been subtly press-ganged into working with Brando only three years after their tahitian adventure – Statter is in no mood to indulge Crain’s indolent lifestyle and pacifistic inclinations. The British are desperately in need of the rubber supply, and assign Crain the mission of discovering the location of the ship’s scuttling charges, so the cargo can be commandeered by an Allied warship.

Once on board, Crain is soon at odds with the ship’s captain, Mueller (Brynner), who does not support the Nazi cause and despises Crain for his Gestapo affiliation. Mueller restricts Crain’s movements around the ship, making it difficult for him to discover the location of the scuttling charges. Valuable assistance emerges from two unlikely sources, a sympathetic crew member and a female prisoner (Janet Margolin), a jewess whose outward defiance belies the previous sexual abuse she has suffered at the hands of her German captors.

Tension mounts when two German naval officers board the ship unexpectedly, and their suspicions are roused during mealtime when, under informal interrogation, Crain acquits himself well with cunning and sheer bravado in equal measure. Now in danger of being discovered, he incites a violent mutiny.

Reactivating his Young lions tuetonic accent, Brando plays a slyly deceptive game, conning the suspicious ship’s officers into trusting him, while he prowls the vessel’s lower deck defusing the explosive charges. Personally for me, the dialogue works well, allowing the star to milk each moment of suspense with a reflective pause.

Ably supported by Janet Margolin – an actress I recall from her role as Gina Lollobrigida’s daughter in the excellent comedy Buona Sera Mrs Campbell (1968), and one who would die tragically young at the age of fifty from ovarian cancer – Morituri succeeds on various levels for those content to part intellectualise warfare.

The Godfather (1972)

Last Tango in Paris (1973)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Something close to a career coda – Brando would only make four more films in his lifetime – this collaboration with Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway is redolent with charm and quirky romanticism.

Reviews were generally poor, Brando in particular being singled out for seemingly sleepwalking through his role and yet, whilst I cannot help feel many of the film’s plot developments are as patently balmy as its central character, I nevertheless found myself carried along on the wave of an entertaining diversion aimed squarely at the non-cynic.

The film recounts the tale of a mental patient (Johnny Depp), who claims to be Don Juan, the world’s greatest lover, a convincing boast in the eyes of many a female. Brando plays the psychiatrist who tries to analyze his patient’s apparent delusion, and Dunaway is his wife, who is keen to inject some Don Juan-esque romance into their marital routine. Walking a fine line between precious comedy, wistful drama, and delicate fantasy, the movie gets a big dose of charm from its esteemed cast, with Depp delivering dialogue that would have sounded ludicrous from a lesser actor. This may not be a great movie, but it is guaranteed to put you in an amorous mood. If you don’t ‘get it,’ then you either haven’t reached that emotional crossroad in your life, or you’ve failed to re-light the fire.

My wife purchased the soundtrack title song by Bryan Adams for me. She has innate taste, and was attracted by the flamenco guitar work. “Have you ever really loved a woman” made the top 5 in Britain and topped the US Billboard chart and was a worldwide million seller.

Recommended reading

Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando (Stefan Kanfer) 2009

Hardly exhaustive, and at times less than illuminating, Kanfer’s tome was nevertheless the first major biography to top and tail Brando’s career, published as it was, five years after the actor’s death.

There’s inevitably a sense of anti-climax about Brando’s career, as his star – a fluorescent beacon that shone so brightly throughout his formative years – would eventually do little but flicker intermittently before self-extinguishing.

For those less discriminating – afficionados content to savour the occasional glimpse of genius – the litany of execrable junk that Brando adorned his name to, becomes all rather academic. Invited by John Gielgud to perform with both himself and Paul Scofield for a full season in London, the enigmatic Brando would have ultimately tackled ‘Hamlet,’ but history now records his cinematic appearance in “The Wild One” — an iconic yet dated film, and still laughably unworthy of his talent. Nevertheless, Brando astride his ’53 Triumph Thunderbird 6T survives for future generations, whilst few alive today would have witnessed his theatrical endeavours. Perhaps he always knew what he was doing………………………..


Official Marlon Brando Website